Besides Graceland, there is another kind of Memphis excess that likewise should not be passed up. Lots of barbecue. Pig transformed into mountains of succulent ribs and sandwiches. No matter where you turn, you’re bound to run into a barbecue joint, the pungent, alluring aroma of meat slow-cooking over wood like a siren’s call to destroy disciplined diets.
Memphis’ barbecued pork sandwich, known in these parts as pig sandwich, was first introduced back in the early ’20s at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue. Leonard Neuberger constructed a sandwich of chopped smoked pork shoulder, a big scoop of coleslaw and a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce. Unfortunately, because Leonard’s was far from downtown and only open for lunch throughout our stay, we weren’t able to get there.
We were driving into the Memphis area rather late. We wanted to have dinner before checking in to our hotel. With the sun setting, we were still on I-40 when I saw the offramp for Germantown. I had on my list one of the highly regarded barbecue restaurants around Memphis called Germantown Commissary. Germantown is a well-to-do suburb of Memphis. When we got to the restaurant, parking was impossible. The lot only has spots for no more than a dozen cars. There was also non-existent street parking. Only after I circled around three times did a spot open up. Inside, there was a wait list (20 minutes). This is a very popular restaurant, even on Monday nights. Their motto: “So good y’ull slap yo mama!”
I ordered the BBQ Shoulder Sandwich, about which food critic Michael Stern wrote, “It would be a crime to come to the Commissary and NOT have pulled pork.” Adding a scoop of cole slaw, barbecued beans and deviled egg gets you the Sandwich Plate. You can have the pork chopped or pulled (default). The shredded pork didn’t have a lot of pork flavor, but it was moist. The sauce was a tad on the sweet side. An overall good sandwich (☆☆½), but not particularly memorable.
Obtaining a #2 rating in a national barbecue survey conducted by People Magazine seems a mighty accomplishment, but it was done in 1989. The writer traveled throughout the country in search of the best. That was 26 years ago. I’d venture to say that a lot has changed in the national barbecue scene since then. Even so, Interstate comes up in BBQ conversations as one of Memphis’ outstanding restaurants. After a full day of exploring downtown Memphis on foot, we made it over to Interstate for dinner before heading back to the hotel.
Their pig sandwich is chopped pork shoulder. Cole slaw, when it’s ordered, is put at the bottom of the sandwich. The meat is piled high and has good pork flavor. Interstate’s sauce is justifiably famous, not too sweet, tart and complex, with flavors of cumin and herbs. It’s impossible to pick the sandwich up to eat it without falling apart under its own weight. I enjoyed this more than Commissary’s. A very fine pig sandwich. (☆☆☆½)
Eating in Memphis would not be complete without barbecued ribs. The city is known both for its “wet” and “dry” styles. The “wet” versions use a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce, which can be applied before, during and after cooking. For “dry” ribs, spices and salt are rubbed on before cooking and served without sauce. Rib aficionados have their hotly defended preference.
This place was under my radar. The first I heard of it was as a lunch stopover on a Memphis city tour, which, in my mind, was not necessarily an endorsement as such. Then, on our bus tour, the driver Willie told passengers that Central was his favorite BBQ joint. We went there on our lunch break.
The ribs were so tender, they broke apart just looking at them. I could easily cut the meat between the ribs with a butter knife. Trying to take a small bite likely as not would pull a big section of meat away from the bone. Here too are two different schools about how tender ribs should be, the other being that they should provide good chew and not pull away from the bone that easily. The sauce had the perfect balance of sweet and tart. These were the best BBQ ribs we’ve ever had. Oh, my! (☆☆☆☆)
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
This restaurant has gotten so popular that locals refer to it simply as The Rendezvous. Our city tour guide mentioned it but added that his personal preference was “wet” ribs. Memphians have been customers for 77 years. The Rendezvous specializes in “dry” ribs, spices and herbs rubbed on them and cooked directly over charcoal, rather than slow-smoked over wood. This gives their ribs a chewier texture. The place is hard to find. Although the address is on 2nd Street, the entrance is actually in an alley between Monroe and Union. Furthermore, the restaurant is downstairs in a basement.
I was surprised at how well I loved these ribs. While regular and spicy barbecue sauces are in squeeze bottles at the table, the ribs need no embellishment, rather a nice change from “wet” ribs. They arrive at the table with a crusty dry rub exterior and sitting in a pool of vinegar, which is a surprisingly good accompaniment. Although these weren’t the tenderest of ribs, I could still cut between the bones with a plastic knife. These are ribs worth sinking your teeth into. (☆☆☆☆)
Interstate’s ribs are not as tender as Central’s nor as fatty. But that doesn’t mean theirs is sub-standard, because they are good. And like the pig sandwich, the sauce is just right, a little spicy, just sweet enough and tart. (☆☆☆)
Memphis does have some fine barbecue joints. The ribs have been consistently good. And while the pig sandwiches have been good, I’ve decided I’m not a big fan of them. Being on a consistent barbecue diet gets old fast, even if done in the spirit of “research.”
A service that all four restaurants offers is shipping. This is made possible largely because both FedEx and UPS are headquartered in Memphis. Our city tour guide Willie related a rumor that the two giants were in merger talks. The new company would be called FedUp. (He was joking, of course.)
147 E Butler Ave
Memphis, TN 38103
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S. 2nd St.
Memphis, TN 38103
2290 S Germantown Rd
Germantown, TN 38138
2265 S. Third St.
Memphis, TN 38109